Speaking of the Bard, the Doncaster, England-born Rigg started with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1959. For them, she was Lear’s Cordelia and “Twelfth Night”’s Viola. In 1972, at the Old Vic, she would unleash her Lady Macbeth. And a year later, she would do my genre-loving heart an unrepayable solid by starring opposite Vincent Price in a movie that would have warmed the gore-stained heart of the author of “Titus Andronicus,” Douglas Hickox’s “Theater of Blood.”
In that film, Rigg plays Edwina, the daughter of the presumably dead and supposedly awful Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart. Traumatized by a history of being panned by critics, Price’s paterfamilias throws himself into the Thames and drowns. Or so the critics think. After being rescued, Lionheart exacts a very literary revenge, killing his critical detractors in ways cribbed from Shakespeare’s plays. Price is having a gloriously hammy good time here, but Rigg makes for a worthy acting co-conspirator; she sells you on the notion that the apple doesn’t fall from the sadistic tree. In a nod to her prior role in Lear, Edwina meets a grisly fate, impaled on the object of her father’s desire, an acting award.
Rigg is also memorable in Paddy Chayefsky’s 1971 medical satire, “The Hospital,” where she acted opposite a gruff George C. Scott and an insane and murderous Barnard Hughes. Both men go large, yet neither manages to budge her on the screen. As Barbara, the much younger love interest whose father is in a coma at Scott’s hospital, Rigg delivers an absolutely absurd monologue about Daddy issues, communes, Native American healers, bears, her father’s religious mania, doctors, murder, masturbation and a very bad acid trip. It’s preposterous, but you hang on her every word because of Rigg’s masterful take on the material. Even if you don’t buy the story she’s telling, you know Barbara believes it. When she comes on to Scott afterwards and he rejects her with a yelling monologue of his own, her unexpectedly nonchalant response as she leaves his office is perfect.
Whether at her most serious or her most playful, there’s a wicked glee that runs through Diana Rigg’s performances. I don’t mean wicked as in evil or monstrous, I mean that you can tell she’s thoroughly enjoying her performance, even if you can only see that joy in her eyes. You share her fun as the murder victim in “Evil Under the Sun” and you can tell she’s getting a kick out of playing opposite the Muppets in “The Great Muppet Caper.” As Lady Holiday, the fashion designer who can’t stop getting robbed of her jewelry, Rigg fabulously sends up being a fashionista. She hates the (admittedly) awful designs she’s creating, is hilariously mean to her models and, at one point, tosses off a line about exposition with enough diva attitude to almost fry Miss Piggy. Lady Holiday is the reason for the caper of the title, and though she’s technically the victim of the crimes, she’s too cool to be devastated for long. The film suffers a bit when she’s not onscreen, which is kind of impressive when you consider Miss Piggy pays tribute to Esther Williams in this movie.